Super Bad Seed: Brightburn

Bear with me as I misremember and possibly misattribute a quote.

“At the rate our technology and understanding of genetics is progressing, some day, the first superhuman will rise forth from a tank. What are we going to put in this being’s hands to read? The New York Times? Atlas Shrugged? Or an issue of Superman?”

The quote, not at all verbatim, possibly was from the beautiful Chaos magician and comic book legend Grant Morrison (unless it was from Mark Millar?), a man who has made an exceptional career from superheroes, and who has positioned Superman as a Sun God and as our highest, noblest ideal. I recommend his work very strongly, particularly All-Star Superman, and also his book “Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.”

Morrison makes the credible argument that a superhero comic is the very best thing we could give someone that has a lot of power to read.

And now, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has given us a vision of a Superman who could well have read … Twitter. Or 4Chan. Or whatever putrid corner of the Internet amplifies the worst thoughts and impulses of America’s boys.

Brightburn (2019)
Director: James Gunn
Writers: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Notable Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner
Plot: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?  (source: IMDb)

Commentary: A brief note on the “hot new trend” of superhero horror: it’s not as new as you think. I argue that the era of comic book blockbusters began NOT with 2000’s X-Men or 2008’s Iron Man. It began with 1998’s dazzling Blade, a movie I love which is based on Marvel’s excellent “Tomb of Dracula” series. Horror and superheroes intersect beautifully when done right.

Brightburn was a technically confident film, aside from a few shaky cam issues. The cinematography was dark, muted and made Kansas look bleak and depressing. The pacing was great; the movie tightly constructed. I can’t fault any performance (only the bad dialogue given to doofus brother-in-law Noah (Jones). Special shout out to Elizabeth Banks who tamped down her campy glam and turned up the anxious hot mom energy (sue me, I like the idea of Kansas farm girls with Ramones t-shirts.) As young Brandon Breyer, the subject of the film, Jackson Dunn did a great job, mixing up the confusion and alienation of puberty with a growing lack of empathy, remorse and positive emotion.

And the horror direction and staging was superb. I suggest taking your blood pressure medicine, because the film kept me on edge, and the violence and gore was quite brutal. Superheroes are a boy’s power fantasy. And nearly every boy in the world (myself very much included) has imagined not only having the power of Superman, but using that power in brutal ways when he’s angry, bullied or cornered. Gunn delivered on that universal dark vision.

Brightburn absolutely belongs in the canon of evil child movies, from The Bad Seed, to satanically powered stories like The Exorcist and The Omen, and delightful modern and nasty iterations like The Orphan.

What We’re Afraid Of: [HEAVY SPOILERS] Stream of consciousness, here’s what I think this movie can touch on: the superhero movie glut; gun violence and school shootings; online radicalization and Internet troll culture; possibly the never ending death knell of the American Dream, played out in the Heartland?

I doubt James Gunn is sick of superhero movies – they are a part of his career and he’s done a great job at them. I also don’t necessarily buy that Brightburn is meant to skewer comic book films, DC Comics, or the character of Superman. And yet, [HEAVY SPOILER] if you stay for the end credits, you see a clever set up for a killer extended universe, and I’ll tell you what: I’m here for the Choke-A-Bitch Wonder Woman! Is this a metaphor for the stranglehold that superhero movies have on box office finances?

Regarding gun violence and school shootings, a much heavier topic – we have a scene where these darling Breadbasket of America parents say “no” to a hunting rifle present for little Brandon. This enrages him, but of course, Brandon doesn’t really need a gun to enact all of his shocking massacres. This small plot point is somehow meaningful, but not in any specific direction. Is it condemning liberal hand wringing over guns? Or is it highlighting the destructive super power that a gun grants a child not in a fictional universe?

I don’t want to say much about online trolls, 4Channers, hurt wounded incel boys who vent destructive anger to actual, damaging effect. I do think this movie codes for toxic online cultures, and no surprise, many of those cultures center around comic books and their movie adaptations. Read here about ComicsGate, the movement that hates everything about girls, minorities and LGBTQ folks being represented in its precious fiction fandoms.

Finally, like that beloved classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I’m considering this a film about the death of the American Dream. The Breadbasket of America, wholesome small town values – these are things very much in the fabric of the Superman myth, of the values that inform the classic versions of the character. And I can’t help but think that with the struggles that American farmers have faced, the great grift being pulled off on the back of their desperation and emotions, that Brightburn is somehow speaking to that.

Up, up and away.

Chillerpop takes your questions and comments here on this blog, on his Facebook page, and on Twitter (@ChillerPop).

If you have a burning desire to (eventually) add Brightburn to your bookshelf, or to support this blog by browsing and shopping via these links, please consider clicking the image below:

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